Donne on Death

By Elesha Coffman, assistant editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

Today marks the anniversary of the death of pastor and metaphysical poet John Donne. The anniversary is an appropriate time to remember him, as he has been accused of being obsessed with death—two of his most famous phrases are "death be not proud" and "for whom the bell tolls," and 32 of his 54 songs and sonnets center on the theme. But his morbid tendencies were neither unfounded nor without an attendant hope.

Donne (1572-1631) lived at a volatile time in England's history. Born into a Roman Catholic family when anti-Catholic sentiments ran high, his affiliation cost him family members (his uncle and brother were killed for their faith) and degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, withheld despite his excellent academic performance. He eventually converted to the Church of England, and he enjoyed the favor of King James I; he even preached the coronation sermon for the king's son, Charles I. Despite his religious associations, however, he lived a famously profligate youth, and his early poetry is often lewd and explicit. (Of Elegy XIX, "To His Mistress Going to Bed," my literature professor at Wheaton said, "Yes, it's pornographic—but it's well written.")

After his marriage to Anne More (he was 30, she was 17, her father was not pleased), Donne settled down. He began a more serious study of religion and experienced a spiritual crisis; his "Holy Sonnets" were composed in this spirit. These reflect a profound shift in Donne's poetry, as he focuses his passion on heavenly rather than earthly love. His spiritual insights garnered attention, and he was persuaded to leave court life for a post in the church. At the height of his career, he held the position of dean at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

As his spiritual life blossomed, however, he experienced many personal tragedies. Most of his marriage was spent in poverty. Five of his 12 children died during birth or infancy. His wife died in 1617, just a year after he took his first parish job; in his funeral sermon for her, he preached from Lamentations, "I am the man that hath seen affliction." Throughout these years, religious conflict continued around and within the Church of England, and plagues regularly attacked London and the countryside. (Donne's friend George Herbert, also a famous pastor and poet, once lost one-third of his small congregation in a single year.) Donne was often ill himself.

So it's not surprising that Donne often had death on his mind. What's remarkable is how he used the subject as a springboard for meditations on all aspects of the Christian life. Always a showman, Donne was not above reminding his congregation that the dust (and, in summer, the smell) in the sanctuary emanated from bodies buried under the floor. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, written while Donne recovered from a life-threatening fever, alternates descriptions of bodily decay and medicinal treatment with broader thoughts on the human condition and prayers for spiritual healing. Donne's final sermon, "Death's Duel," delivered at the beginning of Lent, was particularly effective, as the preacher himself was near death (from stomach cancer). Izaak Walton, in his The Life of Dr. John Donne, wrote of the message, "When to the amazement of some beholders, he appeared in the pulpit, many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice, but mortality by a decayed body, and a dying face." With that sermon, Donne effectively conducted his own funeral.

Two books on Donne recently crossed my desk, one good and one that makes me cringe. The first, part of the Vintage Spiritual Classics series (Random House), includes a very helpful chronology, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, "Death's Duel," and Walton's Life. It is a valuable companion to a volume of Donne's poetry, which I sincerely hope you already own. However, if you don't have a collection of the poems, do not buy Paraclete's "edited and mildly modernized" volume from the Living Library series, as the editor seems to have forgotten that "Holy Sonnets" are supposed to rhyme and that Donne is known, above all, for his mastery of the English language. The poet can communicate just fine on his own, even today.

* For a collection of Donne's poetry, see

Elesha Coffman can be reached at